Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chapter 36 - A Short Trip To Poland: Part 2 - The Congress of Mathematicians of Slavic Countries

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Korzybski’s attendance at the Congress of Mathematicians of Slavic Countries must have given him welcome relief from these woes. The Congress was held at his old school, the Warsaw Polytechnic. He was given half an hour of conference time to give a presentation. He spoke in Polish to an audience of from 40 to 50 people on his “Niearystotelesowy System”(8), which he considered a very clear outline of his work. He tried to get the audience to laugh as much as possible. Some of it seemed to him like confused laughter, but on the whole, as he wrote to Keyser, “It [the presentation] was received well and with interest, whatever that means.”(9) For him the main point of that kind of conference, as he later pointed out, was not in any presentation. Rather it was in the opportunity to meet people and make connections. And, among others, Korzybski met many of the leading lights of the Polish ‘school’ of mathematical logic and analytical philosophy. 
Korzybski (second row of chairs from left, third from right of row)
at the Mathematical 
Congress of the Slavic Countries in Warsaw, Poland, 1929.
Photo courtesy of Robert P. Pula 

One of these was Leon Chwistek, with whom he chatted during the conference. An accomplished painter and literary critic as well as a philosopher and mathematician, he appeared to Korzybski at the time as somewhat eccentric. He delivered his paper dead drunk. A lecturer in mathematics at the University of Krakow, he was among the first to talk about “semantics” in relation to mathematics. What Chwistek intended had more to do with technical considerations of logical syntax than of ‘meanings’, reference, etc. (Chwistek’s paper in Polish, entitled “Semantyczna metoda calkowania” in the Congress program, was translated into French for the Congress proceedings as “Une méthode métamathématique d’analyse”.) (10) But Chwistek’s attempt to revamp Russell’s theory of types struck a chord with Alfred. After Korzybski returned to the U.S., the two men corresponded for several years. Chwistek apparently didn’t think much of Korzybski’s non-elementalistic attempt to develop training for sanity from physico-mathematical methods. However, it was probably through the influence of Chwistek that Korzybski began to use the term “semantic(s)” in relation to his own work, although in a different sense than how Chwistek used the term.

Korzybski also met the logicians Jan Lukasiewicz and Stanislaw Lesniewski, who did not speak at the Congress, and their younger colleague, Alfred Tarski, who presented two papers. These three men had a central place in the mathematical, “formalist” wing of Polish analytical philosophy. “Extreme rebels” against ordinary language, they considered it entirely unsuitable for “the unambiguous formulation of their ideas.”(11) Instead they used mathematical logic to build new forms of logic in a highly technical and abstract symbolism. 

Korzybski certainly had an interest in what they were doing (he would make direct reference to their work in his book). In particular, he noted Lukasiewicz’s and Tarski’s development of three-valued and many-valued logic as an important non-aristotelian advance. But Korzybski, whose earlier writings had emphasized the need for a new logic for science and life, was coming to see ‘logic’ per se—even this new logic—as elementalistic, i.e., too isolated from the living reactions of 
Smith1, Smith2, etc., to remain a major focus of interest for him. (He didn’t denigrate its formal value.) Thus the Polish mathematical logicians, whose work he had only just encountered, had little direct influence on Korzybski’s formulating.

Korzybski’s work appears closer in intent to that of Tadeusz Kotarbinski and Kaszimierz Ajdukiewicz, Polish analytical philosophers of his time who were also interested in the interrelated problems of scientific knowledge, language, and method. In their general approach to language, all three men could be viewed as linguistic “reformists” according to the classification set forth in Henryk Skolimowski’s book Polish Analytical Philosophy. Unlike the more mathematically-focused formalists, reformists qualified as “moderate rebels” against ordinary language: “The moderate rebels do not condemn ordinary language entirely but only reshape it according to their needs.”(12) 

Korzybski’s formulating was not influenced in any significant way by the Polish reformists either, although he at least definitely knew of Kotarbinski’s work.(13) Korzybski had developed his own views independently of his Polish colleagues. “It is quite clear,” as Skolimowski pointed out, “that a number of other philosophers can be classified as reformists. One might even risk a thesis that most of the philosophers of the past were reformists; under the guise of ordinary language, they were in fact shaping their own languages to fit their philosophies.”(14) Korzybski would surely agree with this. In his book he would openly state that “...a language, any language, has at its bottom certain metaphysics, which ascribe, consciously or unconsciously, some sort of structure to this world.”(15) For him, perhaps the main achievement of any significant formulational advance consisted of the language it was stated in.

What then distinguished Korzybski’s reformist program from these others? If everyday language had some metaphysics at its bottom, he wanted that metaphysics to reflect the most reliable up-to-date picture of the world humans had achieved. From this came his need to make a methodologically-oriented synthesis of the sciences of his time. The linguistic revision he was using and advocating in the book (a work still in progress) could help readers to reshape their everyday language and related evaluations in terms of this up-to-date scientific ‘metaphysics’ (basic structural assumptions about the world). Korzybski’s linguistic revision had a physico-mathematical basis without literally requiring one to talk in mathematical formulas. His emphasis on application to individual personal adjustment and sanity gave a unique practical thrust to his reformist program. It brought his work closer to everyday life than the work of many, if not most, other philosophers. Indeed, Korzybski didn’t see what he was doing as philosophy (although he didn’t mind calling it “an up-to-date epistemology.”(16) Scientific in intent, his general theory had serious applications for ‘mental’ hygiene as well as scientific formulating, which he wanted to have empirically tested.

British mathematician W. H. Young, President of the International Mathematical Union, was the special honored guest of the Congress and seemed taken with Korzybski’s program. Young, a big-bearded and energetic man about Keyser’s age, seemed somewhat like a fish out of water at the Congress since he didn’t speak Polish. He may have fallen on Korzybski’s company out of desperation for someone to talk to in English. But he also seemed genuinely interested in Korzybski’s combination of mathematics and psychiatry. After hours, Alfred showed him around Warsaw, including a visit to a famous, old mead cellar (a drinking establishment serving the fermented honey drink as its specialty). The mead didn’t taste very good but the two men made a connection and corresponded for some years afterwards.

Korzybski’s time with Young turned out to be the high point of his visit to Poland. He had found his visit ‘home’ almost unremittingly depressing. He left Warsaw for Danzig on October 2, left Danzig on October 4, and about 4 days later, arrived in London.

While waiting for his ship the R.M.S. “Carmonia”, which would leave for New York on October 12, he had time for more sightseeing:
…visiting different houses, oh, old stuff, and curiously enough the Tower of London, And it sounds so funny, you know, to sit on a bench, stone bench, in the Tower of London [The Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula] and behind you just two feet away is a beheaded Queen of England buried...Anne Boleyn…And I was so thrilled that I landed at the head of the London Tower because I was thinking then how the old masters of England would feel about [my work] and how in a hurry they would put me in the Tower of London. Just irony. …that fortress is one of the oldest in Europe. Of course, I enjoyed looking at all those old buildings because I enjoyed seeing big hunks of wood where they used to do the beheading [in a small, paved area just outside the Chapel]. Looks so funny, you know, in modern days to see that old barbarian stuff. I had quite a few conversations in London with some important men who were interested in Manhood. Then I came back, also from the Tower, with the same kind of trip back to New York.(17) 
Korzybski in London, 1929 

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
8. Korzybski, Notes in Polish for his talk at 1929 Congress of Mathematicians in Warsaw. AKDA 34.845 

9. AK to C. J. Keyser, 9/29/1929. AKDA 22.316. 

10. Congress Program. AKDA 34.833; McCall, p. 391. 

11. Skolimowski, pp. 173, 175. 

12. Ibid., pp. 173–174. 

13. Korzybski 1947, p. 274. 

14. Skolimowski, p. 175–176.

15. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 89. 

16. Ibid., p. 554. 

17. Korzybski 1947, p. 279.

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